Tag Archives: women in fantasy

Pratchett’s Women IV: His Henpecked Voice

Jingo (some spoilers)
The Fifth Elephant (ALL THE SPOILERS)

Both Jingo and The Fifth Elephant missed their mark entirely with me, when I first read them on first release. Which meant that on my recent reread, I at least had fairly low expectations for them.

Jingo on the whole fared much better than the first time around, at least as far as a Vimes and City Watch novel is concerned. The prose is clever and tight, and there are many crunchy themes surrounding war, patriotism, etc. It’s one of those Discworld books that transcends the comedy to have a deeper philosophical meaning, plus as many Leonardo Da Vinci jokes as any sane person would ever want in one place.

However, the thing it doesn’t have is much in the way of… you guessed it, women.

Sybil appears in a few scenes, and is largely reduced to the role of nagging wife. I do love the bit where she chides Vimes for treating her as if she is nagging him and points out how unfair it is, but that’s Sybil for you, grasping any attempt to be awesome, in the face of difficult circumstance. She very much there to point out how awkwardly Vimes is assimilating into the upper classes, and in some cases how well he is assimilating, and to wave a few warning flags that his current workaholic lifestyle is unsustainable. This at least will be followed up in later books.

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Pratchett’s Women III: Werewolf Glamour & the Sexing of Dwarves

Guards, Guards
Men at Arms
Feet of Clay

I always loved the City Watch books of the Discworld series almost as much if not equally to those of the Lancre Witches. Vimes is a wonderful character, someone who has been utterly broken down by life when we first meet him, and gradually pulls himself up by his bootstraps, though he never loses his deep cynicism about the world. The books are packed with lovable, memorable characters: Nobby Nobbs who is basically a big mass of personality quirks mushed together into a smelly vest, cautious Sergeant Colon with a quip for every occasion, and the utterly adorable Carrot, a man so damned GOOD that bluebirds sing whenever he walks down the street. We also get some of the best appearances in the Discworld of the Patrician, one of the most compellingly pragmatic evil overlords ever to exist in fiction, and some of the best stories centred around the city of Ankh-Morpork. All this and some clever, airtight plots, mostly based around police procedural or murder mystery structures. All up, pretty good stuff.

But what about the women?

Guards Guards, the first book featuring the City Watch, is pretty light on when it comes to female characters. The most central woman in the whole story is Sybil Ramkin, dragon expert, whom I love deeply, though it has to be said that she emerges as a fascinating, fully realised and complicated female character despite every attempt of the narrative. Each time she appears, she has to wade through a sea of fat jokes, aristocrat jokes, lonely spinster jokes, and in some cases, all three at once. On more than one occasion she is described vividly as something monstrous or other than human, including scenes from the point of view of the man she will marry in later books.

Every time she opens her mouth, though, Sybil proves herself to be awesome. She’s not just posh and dragon obsessed and lonely and less than slender, she’s also smart, brave, funny, generous, and a good person. I don’t know how to feel about the final scene in which Vimes capitulates to her romantic expectations – it’s gorgeously written, and terribly clever, but I did rankle at him only belatedly admitting that he finds her attractive, and the fact that she is pretty much described as a perfumed siege engine rather than a person. But I love her, I love him, and I do find their later relationship one of the best things about these books (gosh I hope it still is, better brace myself for the visit of the suck fairy) so I will forgive Pratchett for giving Sybil such a problematic debut.

The rest of the women in Guards Guards are largely invisible. We are told about Carrot’s mother, his old girlfriend Minty, his new sort-of-girlfriend Reet, and his innocent friendship with the local brothel madam Mrs Palm and her “many unmarried daughters,” all through scenes in which they don’t actually appear, through dialogue or in his letters home. Likewise Mrs Colon is referenced but we don’t meet her. The entire plot, about a man who uses another bunch of men to summon a dragon and overthrow the Patrician in favour of a fake king to rule them all, and the men who stop him, is one big cockforest. But to put it into context, this is a very early Discworld book, one which had (mostly) not yet accepted that women could play roles other than sexy love interests, funny-because-not-sexy love interests, landladies and witches.

As I discussed in the original Pratchett’s Women post, later Discworld books are far more inclusive of female characters, and that holds true for the City Watch volumes.


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Friday Links Don’t Have Enough Lesbians In Them.

One of the two headline stories of our recent Galactic Suburbia Episode 42 was the piece on Publisher’s Weekly about two authors who were upset about an agent asking them to ‘straighten’ a gay protagonist.

Nicola Griffith shared a video of her describing a similar issue to a group of students, when her own agent questioned why the protagonist of her second novel needed to be a lesbian.

Malinda Lo followed up with a very constructive post looking at the hard stats of YA fiction published in the US over the last several decades. In particular I found it interesting that she proves once and for all that the anecdotal experience of there being less lesbians than gay male characters in YA is absolutely true – in fact, it’s a 2-1 balance. So YA authors, time to add the girl on girl kissing!

Finally, it seems that while the Publishers Weekly was carefully not naming and shaming the agent in question, the buzz behind the scenes was not so kind. She speaks out at Colleen Lindsay’s blog the Swivet, with her own description of the phone call in question.

[UPDATE] The authors of the original post have replied at Rachel’s LJ, standing by their original post and urging people to focus on the bigger and more important picture of making YA more gay-friendly, rather than getting distracted in finger pointing or choosing sides.

In other news, Catherynne Valente provides one of the best responses I’ve seen to the idea of an Amazon ‘subscription service’ for e-books. I don’t think I know any writer who is more eloquent when angry.

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Galactic Suburbia Episode Freaking Forty!!!

New episode up! Grab it from iTunes, by direct download or stream it on the site.


In which we hug the Hugos, plug the Stella, lament the loss of the Weird Tales team, and contemplate (briefly) our podcasterly mid-life crisis. Alex delves into the wonderful world of classic cyberpunk, and Tansy demands to know why on earth Alisa is still watching Doctor Who if she doesn’t actually like it?


Weird Tales Sold, Editorial Staff Kicked Out

Strange Horizons Fundraising Drive

The Stella: new Australian novel prize for women

Galactic Chat
Kelley Armstrong
Ben Peek

Tansy’s win

What Culture Have we Consumed?
Alisa: Doctor Who Season 2, Outer Alliance Podcast
Alex: Trouble and her Friends, Melissa Scott; Only Ever Always, Penni Russon; Synners, Pat Cadigan; Blake’s 7.
Tansy: SF Squeecast #3, Panel2Panel, Among Others by Jo Walton, Alcestis by Katherine Beukner, Stormlord’s Exile by Glenda Larke, AM KINDLED WILL TRAVEL

Pet Subject: Hugoriffic!
Were you there for the Hugo Twitter party? Or did you have to resort to sitting in the live audience?
The stats
The results
Hugos commentary round up

Please send feedback to us at galacticsuburbia@gmail.com, follow us on Twitter at @galacticsuburbs, check out Galactic Suburbia Podcast on Facebook and don’t forget to leave a review on iTunes if you love us!

Friday Links in Spaaaaace!

Bitch Magazine brought me two gems this week: a takedown of the “she’s crazy so we’re supposed to hate her” trope in pop culture with particular reference to Terri in Glee, and a profile of the eternally awesome Wednesday Addams.

Ms Magazine, meanwhile, brought to our attention the sterling work of Geena Davis and her institute who have been investigating the dire representation of girls and women in kids TV/movies. (Thanks to Rowena Cory Daniells for this link) Hard data, people! It’s not just Pixar letting the side down, and I think it’s especially important that they are focusing on the effect this has on boys as well as girls.

You all know by now that I am utterly obsessed with the cosplaying Gender Bent Justice League – now find out a little more about the women who came up with the idea, and their fabulously supportive male friends.

While we’re talking about subversive visual imagery, check out this body positive colouring book by Nicole Lorenz: Fat Ladies in Spaaaaace!

Juliet McKenna on the representation of women in fantasy: a very in depth and thoughtful post which makes me wonder why the hell I haven’t read her books already.

In other ‘why the hell haven’t I read her books already’ news, the wonderful Kate Elliott is interviewed at Tor.com.

PublishAmerica announce they’re going to stalk JK Rowling on YOUR behalf, for a price

Angry Robot announces Worldbuilder, a creative commons plan to expand the fictional worlds of their authors. i’m skeptical about this one – I’m all for not harassing fanfic writers, but the idea of commissioning fanfic for a work that hasn’t been published yet is a whole different ballgame. Still, will be interesting to see the results!

unexpected tuesday links!

I skipped my Friday links post last week, because… well, you know. It was one of those days. I have so many links building up, though, I thought I’d better get one in now or I’ll end up having to produce a whole magazine by the time Friday comes around again! Also, some of my links are in danger of looking severely dated…

In other news, it is raining. Grim, vengeful rain. How else would you expect rain that holds off all day and then starts while I am EN ROUTE to pick up my daughter for school, with the baby in the back seat, so I don’t even get a head’s up that maybe today was not the day to put the baby in soft slippers? In other news, Jem has grown so much now that her feet entirely stick out of the stroller, and the plastic rain cover for said stroller. All of these facts are related.

Deb Biancotti is interviewed by Alisa at Galactic Chat!

Fabulous roundtable about (global) Women in World SF
– every comment is packed with intelligent, thoughtful ideas. I am delighted such a thing exists in the world. Some important questions are asked, like – why is it so easy for urban fantasy to be excluded from any discussion on spec fic? And why is it that crime readers are so much more open to female authors than SF readers?

The roundtable was in response to this original post by Joyce Chng about women outside the English speaking world are doubly marginalised in the science fiction field.

Maureen Johnson takes on the writer of that Wall Street Journal article (podcast), on the topic of whether YA fiction is getting too dark for teenagers to be allowed to read – fabulous radio and it’s cool to see how articulate Maureen is in person. It’s irritating that the final word goes to a caller who is obviously just out to plug his own book and hasn’t actually been listening to much that has been said in the conversation, and I was disappointed Maureen didn’t get to comment on what he said, but for the most part I think her point of view came across clearly and the conversation was absolutely one worth having.

This post by Tricia Sullivan is getting a little long in the tooth now, but I think it’s absolutely worth checking out if you haven’t already. To put it and the conversation it responds to into context, it’s also worth reading these two posts by Cheryl Morgan: Here We Go, and Further Thoughts. There is some intelligent, interesting conversation in the comments of all three of these posts.

I’m still chewing over my thoughts on the upcoming DC reboot, and this is one of the best posts I’ve seen exploring some of the problematic aspects of regressing storylines, particularly when it comes to female and minority characters.

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Pratchett’s Women: The Boobs, the Bad and the Broomsticks

[SPOILER ALERT for several older Discworld novels and one key scene in recent release I Shall Wear Midnight]

Some time ago, I talked on Galactic Suburbia about how I felt Pratchett was one of those writers who you can see noticeably improving and honing his craft as he goes, and that one of the elements he hugely improved in over the years was his treatment of female characters. Someone commented that they hoped we would elaborate on that at some point, and I have always intended to, though I don’t know that Galactic Suburbia is the best place for that discussion – largely because I think I’m the only one of the three who is a huge reader of Pratchett.

I started reading the Discworld books in the early 90’s, when Small Gods was the latest release. This meant that I read all the books before that in (mostly) the wrong order, and all of the books after that in (mostly) the right order. So it took me some time to figure out what was going on with Pratchett’s women, and the chronology of those early books is still a little muddled in my head.

The first ten books of the Discworld series are quite problematic in their portrayal of female characters, particularly the younger women. I certainly don’t think this was intentional on Pratchett’s part, but an unfortunate result of the fact that in these early books he was largely writing parody of various fantasy worlds and tropes, just beginning to develop the Discworld into something more substantial and complex. I also feel that Pratchett was very much aware of some of the dreadful sexism in his source material, and the female characters he wrote were often in direct response to what he saw in the fantasy genre.

His intentions to point out the silliness of the portrayal of women in fantasy, sadly, backfired somewhat.

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Galactic Chat Update

Our lovely producer has just put up the fourth interview in the Galactic Chat series – we have one more pre-recorded from Swancon to go, and then we’ll have to start burning up those Skypewaves again! I’ve been vaguely teeing up some future interviews for later this year.

So far we have:

Marianne De Pierres
Tansy Rayner Roberts
Glenda Larke
and now…
Kirstyn McDermott!

Like my interview with Glenda, Alisa recorded this one with Kirstyn at Swancon, but luckily Kirstyn went and won an Aurealis Award this weekend so the interview is extra topical. Hooray!

Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

I’ve been meaning to review Who Fears Death for a month now, and not sure why I’ve been putting it off other than wanting, really wanting to do this extraordinary book justice by what I write. Sometimes, though, you have to just suck it up and accept that it’s better to try and fail to get your thoughts across than kick the topic under the bed and ignore it.

In many ways, I feel too ignorant to properly discuss this book and what it does. I know almost nothing about Africa’s history, modern culture, or any other books or stories which might put this novel better into context. One of my quite appalling realisations while reading it was that I couldn’t think of a single other novel set in Africa that I have read. Ever. So there’s some context for you, about the level of my literary ignorance, if nothing else!

I thought I knew a lot about this book going into it, from having read reviews and the author’s own description of what the book does. So I knew that it would be hard-going, that it tackled some traumatic themes about gender issues, particularly rape and female circumcision. I knew to some extent that it was both science fiction and fantasy, and that it was most definitely not intended for younger readers. I gritted my teeth somewhat, heading into it, because I did suspect it was going to be confronting.

And yes, confronting it most certainly was. Okorafor took what I like to call the “Margo Lanagan” approach in that she introduced some of the most confronting aspects of her book in the early chapters, rather than sneaking them up on readers in the middle or end of the story. The readers are taken through the brutal gang rape of the protagonist’s mother, and also a scene in which the protagonist goes through ritual circumcision in order to better “fit in” to her local community. Both scenes are incredibly hardgoing, and yet there is nothing gratuitous about either. The world of Onyesunwu, whose name means ‘who fears death’ is a world where rape and circumcision hugely affect the lives of women, and establishing this up front is an important aspect of the story.

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Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal

When I first saw this book described by the author as being the book Jane Austen might have written had she lived in a world with magic, I did think that was a bit much. Obviously I wanted to *read* such a book, but really, comparing yourself to Austen? Isn’t that reaching a tad high, especially for a debut novelist? Also, let’s face it, a lot of authors have jumped on the Austen bandwagon. I’ve been burned by a lot of bad sequels to Pride and Prejudice, and while I never actually got around to trying that novel with added zombies, I did read a page of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, and I’m never getting that thirty seconds of my life back!

But then I read this book, and I realised what was going on here.

Shades of Milk and Honey is a novel so immersed in Austen and what for the purposes of this review I shall call Austenalia, that it seems impossible to read it any other way. It verges on parody, though the clever use of language and extreme authenticity of characters keeps it on the right side of that line. Which is not to say that there is not a hint of mockery about Austenian conventions in this book – but it’s the gentle kind of mockery that comes from someone who genuinely loves that author’s work, as opposed to, for example, the clumsy and appallingly offensive Red Dwarf episode written by Robert Llewellyn who had obviously never even watched a costume drama all the way through to the end…

Where was I?

I can’t speak to the reading experience of Shades of Milk and Honey if you are not familiar with Austen – I think it would still be a very enjoyable story, a pleasing combination of magic and historical romance with strong family relationships and much social detail. It fits very nicely into the current fashion for women’s historical fantasy, and while it differs a great deal from Alaya Johnson’s Moonshine and Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, I can see it sharing their reading audiences. There is a potential here for mass reading appeal among the non-spec-fic community, as with The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, the Naomi Novik novels about Temeraire, or the admittedly-not-genre The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler, and the book seems packaged to make the most of that potential readership. I hope it finds it!

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